Mental Illness Isn’t Your Scapegoat

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: abusive relationships are horrible. We should do everything we can to provide people with information on what an abusive relationship looks like, how to get out of one, and how to stand up for yourself and your boundaries, as well as support for those who are trying to escape an abusive relationship.

There are many good resources out there on how to recognize unhealthy behaviors. There’s also lots of people out there doing work specifically with women and girls to remind us that we don’t deserve abusive relationships.

What is not a good response to abusive behavior is blaming mental illness. I can’t believe I have to say this, but it is 100% possible to have a mental illness, really any mental illness, and not be abusive. This includes individuals with Borderline Personality Disorder, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and Antisocial Personality Disorder. Pointing towards abusive behaviors as intrinsically linked to any of these disorders is not backed up by facts (there are many abusers who use all of these same tactics and do not have any mental illness), and throws the rest of the individuals with mental illness under the bus in order to advocate for abuse victims.

This article at Self Care Haven has some great information about techniques that many abusers will use. Unfortunately, it couches it entirely in language of “narcissists” and how those individuals behave, rather than recognizing that any abusive individual can make use of these tactics (and many do), and recognizing that a diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder is not a life sentence to being an abusive person who cannot have real relationships.

Abuse is a pattern of behaviors and interactions. It is not a personality. We don’t get to simply label any behavior we deem bad as “mental illness” in order to ignore how we as a society have contributed to it or in order to brush off any support we could provide for someone to change. I am all for speaking openly about mental illness and the challenges it can present in relationships and everyday life, as this is the best way to improve treatment and diagnosis of mental illness, but more often than not we use the label of “mental illness” to close a conversation about a difficult or painful topic.

Gun violence? They were mentally ill. Start a registry.

Domestic abuse? Mentally ill. Don’t date people with personality disorders.

Do you just disagree with someone? They’re probably mentally ill too.

Here’s the truth: even the personality disorders that make it most difficult to hold down relationships are not a life sentence. Borderline Personality Disorder, which has long been seen as the land of the manipulative and angry, has an evidence based treatment that has high success rates. Many people with BPD have totally functional lives with families, jobs, and everything else a healthy human being might want (ok, maybe not everything, but they lead fairly boring lives for the most part).

There are absolutely highly functioning individuals with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, or Antisocial Personality Disorder. There’s evidence that Cognitive Behavior Therapy can reduce symptoms and increase functioning, allowing patients to form better and healthier relationships. More study is definitely needed, but instead of broadly labeling personality disorders (especially ones that already come with a lack of empathy and distrust of others) as breeding grounds for abusers, perhaps we could put some effort into finding treatment for people who have these disorders.

None of this is to say that people who have mental illnesses should be excused of abusive behavior. But providing information about abusive behaviors and giving tools and support to victims is not mutually exclusive to providing mental health treatment options to abusers, and absolutely does not require that we assume a certain mental illness necessitates abusive behavior.

There are some parallels here to threats of suicide or self harm. If you have a mental illness, there is a possibility you will feel urges to enact these behaviors. Letting a partner or friend know that you are feeling the urges is definitely a good idea. Threatening the behaviors in order to get your partner or friend to do something is not ok and cannot be excused by mental illness. The urges are the same, the behaviors are different, and choosing the healthier route is a skill that can be learned. Similarly, the urge to use and manipulate people might be a hallmark of a personality disorder, but the urge doesn’t necessitate the behavior.

We can do better in how we talk about abuse.

I Love Selfies

One of my most favorite people in the world, Elyse MoFo Anders, recently started a project called Operation Flawless. Go check it out and participate if you feel the urge. I’m having tons of fun with it already. The basic gist of the project is to intentionally post selfies of yourself looking less than flawless to highlight the impossibility of beauty standards and to recognize how important and powerful self-portraits (selfies) can be. As I’ve participated in this project, I’ve come to a realization: I love selfies.

Photo on 2014-02-04 at 07.50

This might come as a surprise to many of you. I’ve spoken many times before about my insecurities and my unhappiness with my looks. But no matter how much I dislike looking at myself in the mirror, I love seeing pictures of myself. I feel so much more comfortable when there’s a distance between myself and the image of myself, so that I can be somewhat more objective when assessing myself. I would rather look at a picture of myself than see myself in the mirror any day. I can manipulate my pictures, delete my pictures, only keep the pictures I like, only look at the pictures from when I looked happier…I can control pictures.

But more than just the medium, I absolutely adore being able to take pictures of myself. Selfies are sort of like the ultimate form of power over how others see you and over how you see yourself. It’s kind of lovely. When I take selfies I get to decide how I’m lit, what I’m wearing, whether I wear makeup, how my hair is, the background, and pretty much everything else. And on top of that I get to continue taking pictures until I find the one that I think is exactly perfect and how I want to look. I can play model, try to smize, find the exact quirk of my mouth that makes me look snarky/sexy/happy.

Photo on 2013-10-28 at 18.09

Perhaps my favorite part of selfies is that I get to pick what’s important in my life and capture that moment for y’all to see. When someone else is taking the pictures, they’re in the driver’s seat. You’re doing something you think is embarrassing or boring? Oh look there’s a picture! You’re drifting somewhere else and not really present? Yup, picture of that too! You’re stuck somewhere you don’t want to be? Mmhmm, everyone knows. When you’re taking the pictures, you get to pick. Not all of you will understand. Sometimes I take pictures of myself sitting at Caribou, sometimes hanging out at home doing nothing. More often than I should admit there are cats in my pictures. I take selfies when something I want to share is happening. It’s my visual diary. It reveals the things I do often, or the things that are exciting and important.

Photo on 2013-09-13 at 14.22

Unfortunately I often find (especially lately) that I’ve stopped posting selfies unless there’s a “reason”. I’ve internalized well enough the messaging that just posting pictures of yourself is trite, self-absorbed, juvenile, or wrong in some way. On some level it seems to say “I don’t have anything better to post”. Well bullshit on that. Me, myself, and I are worth posting. The times that I care about are worth posting. I don’t need to live up to anyone’s standards of worthiness on my own Facebook page or Twitter. It’s not narcissism to share my own image of myself: that’s the entire point of social media.

Photo on 2013-08-11 at 17.13

I’m taking Elyse’s invitation to personally reclaim the selfie. I love seeing my face plastered all over the internet and if no one else will do it for me, then gosh darn I’ll do it myself!